I once thought of him as the one who had chiselled me out of the compressed blue iceberg of my shyness. Before meeting him, I floated down the school hallway’s current as mute as driftwood, skirting eddies of girlfriends, their plum lips giggling gossip bubbles. When they pointed, their puce fingernails pierced through girls like me wearing Zeller’s brand jeans.
Teachers looked through me as if I was a clean plane of glass. In homeroom, I would shield myself with a book while classmates around me chirped about weekend parties. I tried to ignore the aroma of chalk that permeated the air and immerse myself in the story. My homeroom teacher kept mistaking me for another girl with long brown hair and recording me as absent instead of her. The Biology teacher boomed, “Who is Miss Lanctot?” when I got 83 on a test.
A brash football player, he jet-skies down the centre of the hallway, calling out to friends over the clang of locker doors and the click of combination locks. We meet at our part-time job, washing dishes at a nursing home. He makes sure we take our breaks together. His motorcycle rumbles like an earthquake as he circles the block to pass my house again and again. He keeps asking me for a date until I agree. Within a month, he drags me along in his wake, calls me his brown-eyed girl rather than four-eyes. I attend parties with him, gain enough confidence to style my hair and buy contact lenses. People remember my name. I consider myself lucky that he noticed me.
Sure, I’d saved for this school trip to Spain for two years, but he can’t join me and he doesn’t want me to go without him. His “Please, please stay home with me” pleas make me feel treasured. They evoked Harlequin Romance images of a foggy train station where the heroine reunites with her one true love just before the whistle warns of her permanent departure.He keeps adding twigs to my embers of self-doubt until I’m convinced everyone else on the trip will ignore me. “You won’t have any fun without me. Besides, without you I’m too lonely.” I cancel the trip.
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He treats my virginity like grape bubble-gum, chewing away resistance until I’m soft enough to pop. “But Babe, a man has neeeeeds.” Musty outdoor carpeting camouflaging a cold basement floor, not the romantic milieu of my dreams. I tell my sister the bruises come from an accident at work and myself passion overcame him. No tenderness, ignoring my “stop, it hurts”, just rough hands pushing me down and his weight pressing on me. Then him explaining it was my fault because I got him so horny. When I discover I’m pregnant, I recall the many times my parents told me that no one wants pre-chewed gum. Once my pregnant belly starts to protrude, he asks me to stand around the corner while he goes to talk with his professor. I feel like the grey wad stuck to the sole of his running shoe.
Despite this, he insists he on marrying me, giving our child a family. Because everyone talks about his dedication and skills as a father in the years that follow, I stay married.
After our baby’s birth, I enroll in nursing at the local college. The hospital hires me immediately after graduation. When I vent about my reaction to the death of a young mother the same age as me, my husband recites a parable about a man who imagines placing his burdens from work under a tree outside the front gate before entering the house. He tells me to do the same. I wasn’t talking about work, I was talking about mortality. I feel smaller than the ant I watch crawling across the linoleum.
Shift work exhausts me. Most nurses with Monday to Friday, day jobs have baccalaureate degrees. With both sons in primary school, I start working towards my degree by distant education. After seven years, I graduate top of the class. Since I’m the first part-time student to accomplish this, the university asks permission to place my graduation picture on the cover of their continuing education magazine which is mailed out to every home in our community. When its delivered to our home, my husband rages, “I’m so fucking tired of hearing about how smart you are” and throws the magazine in the garbage along with my glossy pride.
The boys are in high school by the time I finally land a day job. My manager finds fault in every action I take, in every word I write. When I discuss this at home, my husband says “enough already, grow a backbone.” After a year of constant criticism, I’m diagnosed with depression when I crawl under my desk at work, sobbing. I talk about my depression with my mother on our portable telephone. Hubby insists I stop because “the neighbors might hear about my shameful condition.” At night instead of sleeping, I plan a clandestine path to the shift currents of the river. I stop talking about me.
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As I run out the door, I shout, “I’ll only be gone an hour or so. Please, no need to call.” Mom snorts, “It’s your husband calling, again. Don’t leave just because he called.” Shame prickles my face like a rough whisker rub. With each tick of my watch I debate leaving and disappointing mother or staying and angering husband. My sense of duty begins fraying like a bungee cord stretched taut between the two. My husband laments about my self-indulgence for spending ninety minutes away when I know he doesn’t like being alone. It’s easier to stop visiting Mom.
Outgoing and affable in public, he is a complex web of insecurity at home. His boss criticizes him without reason. His co-workers are idiots. He needs to vent. At first, I think I can help him build his self-esteem but his need for validation spreads like shallow crabgrass tentacles, soaking up more of my time.
When both sons start attending university, he complains that he’s so lonely when I go out with them. He paces while I talk on the phone. I let my circle of deep-rooted friends wither away.
I advance at work, he doesn’t. He laments, “How do you think that makes me feel.” The boys flourish in university. When they come home for the summer, he whines we leave him out of supper conversations. I learn to hear the tension in his vocal cords the precedes him smashing his first on the table, the same tautness as the string of a bow before the arrow’s release.
When I talk about wanting changes in our relationship, more time for myself or suggest counselling, he cites this as yet another example of my selfishness, tells me its my fault he feels like a failure. “I have rope in the basement, I can hang myself from a tree. Is that what you want?”
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Now that we are empty-nesters, the list of my deficiencies grows. I’m lazy because I set the table with ketchup out of his reach, inconsiderate because I change radio stations when he’s out of the room. I should fix myself up, do more to make him feel sexy. A waterfall of complaints erodes my confidence; white waters crash into every tranquil crevice of my mind. He tells me no one else would tolerate my shortcomings.
He wants me by his side, always. He says he is so disappointed in me when he gets home from work and the house is dark with no aroma of supper to greet him. He discounts my explanation that the pressures my Director on Nursing position are difficult to fit into a 9 to 5 day. I can’t even read a book while he watches the hockey game because “what fun is it to watch hockey if you have no one to discuss it with.” I feel like a dog confined to the yard by an invisible fence.
He shows up a work unannounced and wants me to go for lunch with him. He is upset when I can’t leave but I have a meeting over the lunch hour. My secretary offers to accompany him. When she returns, she remarks, “He has no idea how hard you work.”
Oldest son comes home for a rare overnight visit. When Dad announces its time for bed at 9 p.m., my son asks me to stay up and watch a movie. The next morning, my husband calls me callous, claims he can’t sleep without me but he was snoring when I crawled in beside him. Over the twenty-seven years of our marriage, he has continuously gained weight until its awkward for him to get into bed. Once, I held the sheets and blankets and now that’s my duty.
His words drip lemon bitters when he reminds me of this. “You didn’t think about how hard it would be for me to get under the sheets last night, did you.”
“You stopped at the Shell station on Highway 2 for gas ten minutes ago.” He beams when he discovers the speed of electronic banking. This adds more immediacy to his control of our finances.
After the bank statement arrives, we spend hours matching a litter of receiptsto each transaction. He interrogates me about the five dollars cash I donated towards a co-worker’s gift as though I am hiding Sierra Madre gold dust with my pocket lint. When I object to spending time tracking down this insignificant amount, he retorts by crackinghis fist through the wall.
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We drive into the muddy pot-holed parking lot for a wedding reception. Drivers stop to drop passengers at the front entrance. I mention my long dress and suede shoes, ask my husband to do the same. He agrees but at the last minute decides to park saying, “It isn’t that far.” While I scrape the mud off my shoe, a cousin asks why my husband didn’t drop me off. With my broadest smile, I respond, “I told him not to. We parked close enough to the door.”
Why do I defend him?
When the kids were little, I remember getting ready to leave for a night shift. He grumbled, “I cannot believe you are leaving to look after strangers when I’m so sick.” “They pay me. Besides, you’re just going to sleep while I’m gone.” I couldn’t face the wrath of colleagues if I cancel another shift with just a few hours notice again. Besides, the last time cancelled, the supervisor suggested I was in the wrong profession and should consider looking for another job.
I hand him two aspirin. “Take this, let me tuck you into bed.”
Another time, he showed up at the hospital after I called to say I’ll be home late because it’s too busy. “Your shift is over, leave now.” My colleagues scurried up and down the hall around us. The unit’s call system bell ding, ding, dinged in the background while lights up above the patients’ rooms illuminated the hallway like an airport runway. “The longer I stand here talking to you, the later I’ll get home.” As I walked away, my white shoes squeak down the polished terrazzo hallway. I wonder what happened to that braver me.
Even a friendly pet can become aggressive or fearful when stimulus is consistently associated with threat. Furthermore, there is always a risk that she may see something she wants to chase or be frightened enough to venue across the invisible fence. Our comprehensive training ensures she does not try.
I start working at a hospital near the school where he works. To save on gas, he starts driving me back and forth to work. I worry about having enough time to meet the demands of my job. He promises to drop me off before he picks up coffee and not complain if I have to work at home. This never happens. He always has an excuse. One daffodil picked from a large bouquet of reasons.
Now I spend every minute outside of work with him. On Friday nights, he picks up a case of beer and heads straight to his buddy’s home. Every week, he promises to stop for supper first but changes his mind. When I suggest that I go home and return to pick him up, he insists that he cherishes my company even though he sits downstairs with his buddy and drinks while I sit upstairs. I silently practice saying “I’m going out to get something to eat, do either of you want anything?” but I never it. What might his response reveal about our relationship?
During a hospital’s educational session on the benefits of universal screening for domestic abuse, an Emergency Department colleague complains about the futility of screening every patient, every visit. She provides examples of women she encounters, repeatedly seeking treatment for broken bones and bruises, denying abuse and refusing help while a seething partner paces in the waiting room. I tell myself I am not like these women because he has never hit me.
I hope nobody notices me flush as the educator starts review the questions. Questions about feeling anxious around my partner, watching what I am doing in order to avoid making him angry, being afraid to voice a different opinion, stopping to see family and friends, feeling wrong all the time, like I can never please him. I score myself as the educator explains the rating scale and my results say “domestic abuse is likely.”
My friend has an unfurnished apartment she needs to sub-let for a few months. At night, I imagine walking through the apartment and mentally repeat a list of items I intend to take when I leave: air mattress and pump, pillow, sheets, blanket; toiletry, towel, facecloth; two place settings, a pot, a pan, a bowl. I need a few items until I open a bank account and have my paycheques deposited there. I too afraid to write the list on a piece of paper.
I know the risks of violence are greatest when a woman leaves an abusive relationship. I think of the way he glares at me, clenches his fist or bangs his hand on the table, and the ripple of tension that spreads across his face for minor infractions like putting the mustard away on the wrong shelf or chewing an apple “too loudly.” I remember his threats of suicide. I’m not sure how literally he interprets our wedding vows.
Kimberly Peterson writes poetry and creative nonfiction that explores surviving challenging experiences. Her poetry has appeared in a wide range of publications including Room Magazine, Byword, and In/Words and is scheduled to appear in Event and Prairie Fire. Visit www.kimberlypeterson.ca to see more of her work.